Imagine if you will, a distressing scenario. You’re stranded on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean. Your throat is parched, your lips cracked–for the love of God, you would lick an iceberg for a swig of anything that does not taste like brine. You look out at the rippling expanse of sea that you know stretches miles further than your own pathetic humanity can perceive. A familiar adage comes to mind. “Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink,” you murmur methodically, wondering if there was ever a time when you considered using this phrase literally. You remember the last time you uttered those words. Oh, how you’d laughed! Your intern, a lovely chap, placed another file on your desk. “How goes the hiring?” he inquired. “You know how these things go,” you chuckled, fingering the edges of the twelfth application that day. “Water, water, everywhere and not a drop to drink.”
Little did you know, just six months later, you’d be waking up afloat in a vast desert of salt water with no end in sight. Little did you know, you’d be drifting into…The Unemployment Zone.
Melodrama aside, the job search sucks. Nothing I have ever done could have prepared me for this unfortunate fact of life. I have held eleven different jobs since college, and I have only interviewed for three of them. Of those three, one of them was practically guaranteed by my status as an Oberlin student, and one was partly guaranteed by my status as a member of the Oberlin Student Cooperative Association. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not like I didn’t work for those jobs. I spent time on my applications, and I sweated through every minute of the interviews. I worked hard and got promoted, or received good enough grades to be considered for department-specific positions. When I was a notetaker, I never missed a single class, and I developed a reputation of excellence. I had to prove myself, and it wasn’t easy. I’ve ridden that reputation into creating a sort of free-lance research assistant position at the College. I’m really trying hard to keep it up and not exhaust the opportunities I’ve been provided. So, it’s not like I sat cross-legged, spread my arms, looked up into the clouds, and expected it to rain employment. I didn’t think it was easy, but I also didn’t think it was going to be this hard.
I was raised to think I was special. I was raised to believe that if I put in the effort, I would get the results. When I practiced dance, I won medals. When I wrote papers or took tests, I got As. When I spoke in class or in the co-op, people listened and nodded. When I interviewed for a job, I got it (or, in some cases, a different job within the same organization.) I was raised with the understanding that my feelings and opinions mattered, that no one was going to ignore me, that I would get exactly what I wanted if I tried hard enough simply because I am me. I am brilliant. I am a genius. I am talented and sharp. I am well-spoken and polite–amiable, even. I am passionate and industrious. I am employable.
The problem is that there are plenty of ‘Me’s in the sea, and, I hate to break it to you, but there are plenty of ‘You’s too. So, what I wanted to do was compile a sort of working list of things that I have learned related to the job application process, because I know a lot of people my age are wrestling with the same problems. Or, maybe they’ve won and pinned the other guy, but I still think it’s good for people to hear that–hey!–just because you have work today doesn’t mean you’ll have it tomorrow. You are privileged. Recognize it and grow from it, and don’t you dare look down on me like I am worse than you.
1) Qui tacet consentire…NOT: Sorry, Thomas More, you were wrong in assuming Henry VIII would buy that your silence meant you had accepted his marriage to Anne Boleyn, and you’d probably be wrong in assuming that silence from a potential employer means they’re considering your application. Fortunately, being wrong in this assumption doesn’t mean that your head is going to roll. Unfortunately, when you apply for a job, you are not in the power seat. No one has to respect you. If you don’t RSVP to a party, it’s inconvenient and rude. If an organization doesn’t respond to let you know that they have received your application, it’s still inconvenient and rude. It’s annoying and stressful and all those other badjectives. The difference is that they have something you want, and, in my case, need. They can do whatever they please, and there’s no way to hold them accountable. The worst part about it is, you still have to be polite. If there’s even the slightest glimmer of hope that you might still be contacted about the position, your fingers have to be dripping in honey when you type up your follow-up e-mails. When you call them, you have to sound sweet and inquisitive, not paranoid and aggressive. Who needs dignity as much as they need money? The answer? No one.
2) You cannot polish a turd: Somewhere in the process of losing your dignity, you also (somehow) have to find the ability to brag. So, there’s this position I held once that I have mixed feelings about. The truth is: I worked in a dusty, disorganized student co-operative archive up in the Student Union. I had office hours that no one visited, and I wrote a monthly publication that was probably used more for toilet paper than edification after it had been distributed to the various co-ops around campus. I planned events that few people attended and created memory-making projects that few participated in. The truth is: I managed the archival library of a multi-million dollar 501(c)3 non-profit student co-operative association. I wrote, edited, and distributed a monthly publication, in which I disseminated information about historic and current events. I developed and tested theories related to co-operative memory making, with some success. I planned and facilitated education events for co-op membership. Both truths describe the same position, but which sounds better? It’s time to invest in some rose-colored glasses. No matter how successful you consider your work in a position, you have learned something about something. Through this position, I learned that motivating a group of over 600 busy college students to care about institutional memory is really difficult. I learned that, even when you bring the history down from the fourth floor and lug it across campus directly to the membership, it can still be inconvenient and inaccessible. I learned the value of social media, and I later created a successful memory-making project based on this experience. Long story short: any turd can be polished.
3) It’s what’s inside that counts: Yes, your work experience is what makes or breaks your resume. It’s true. You can’t apply for a senior archival directorship without ever having worked in an archive. But I also want to suggest that you shouldn’t apply for that directorship if your resume uses Comic Sans and word art. Thanks to a post on my friend, Maggie’s, Facebook, I gave my resume a face-lift. It looks great and natural. No overly-puffy lips or too-taught cheeks. And, best of all, it proves that I know how to use Microsoft Word before an employer even reads that fact all the way down at the bottom. It shows that I am organized and can produce an attractive end product. Without exercising any brian power, you can figure all of this out. How easy and convenient! Before my resume was pretty and I was proud of it. I can make bullet points, but so can everyone else. This new format makes my resume from Nashville. (Because it’s the only Ten-I-See? Get it? I made a joke. It fell flat. Deal with it.)
4) Hey, girl, let me talk to you: If you get an interview, you are qualified. It means that they can see you working in the position–the you on paper at least. They want to talk to you and get to know you. If you get an interview, have a celebratory drink. I’m telling you: feel good. It’s the same way with human relationships. If someone at a club wants to take you home, it means your smokin’ hot. Don’t wait until you have a wedding ring to feel validated and beautiful. Don’t wait until you have that job offer to feel qualified and worth something. Just like human relationships, there are plenty of other people on earth. There are hoards of recent history graduates trying to work in museums. Sometimes it’s just not right, and it can’t go further than an hour long talk or a steamy ONS. But just because I’m still looking for my soul-job doesn’t mean I don’t deserve one. The fact that I have had one interview–even just the one–gives me hope. Even for an hour, maybe even still, that person thought I could do a good job. I wasn’t lucky enough to receive the coveted acceptance, but that doesn’t mean that someone else was better. Someone else just happened to be someone else. I’m trying not to take it personally. There’s something out there for me. There’s something out there for you.
There are plenty of other things I’ve learned but I want to end on a positive note. I’ll save those for another post, perhaps. Until then, I am your underemployed, yet ever hopeful Friend.